Specialized Trailers: Open For Business

Specialized open trailers offer opportunities for high-dollar hauling.

Some owner-operators looking to make more money will focus on using a specialized open trailer in a niche market. It’s a sound approach, but take care because the high-dollar freight isn’t always available.

“You are not going to get any more money for a flatbed load if you put it on your dropdeck,” observes Chris Brady, who operates Commercial Motor Vehicle Consulting. “But when the high and wide stuff is running, you have to have that single-drop to get the premium rate.”

Flatbeds with sides and single-drops command $1.20 to $1.40 per mile. A typical removable gooseneck (RGN) load is closer to $1.80 to $1.90, and more if it’s oversized. The double-drop with a big well can make $2.20 to $2.40 a mile. But that $2.40 also means perhaps half the paid mileage that goes with a van or a flat with sides. The owner-operator with the double-drop might deadhead 30 percent to 40 percent of the time. He will spend a lot of time waiting for loads. Even with the waits, the deadhead and the sporadic revenue flow, the double-drop operator tends to make more money than the van operator running the same number of miles.

Operators who can afford two trailers – perhaps a dry van and a specialized open trailer – can do even better because they have the flexibility to deal with periods of slow freight. “Some owner-operators have trailers geared toward seasonal hauls or local hauls they can use to supplement their other niche work,” Brady says.

Following are some of the more common specialized open trailers:

FLATBED WITH SIDES

This open-deck trailer has 2-foot or 4-foot wooden sides held in place by aluminum stakes. The deck is enclosed by a tarp on aluminum bows that stretches to the sides to provide complete weather protection, giving it the appearance of a covered wagon.
Chris Lewis, an owner-operator with his own authority, has a line haul of ventilated shelving for Rubbermaid east of the Mississippi. Because his backhaul can be anything, he covers plenty of possibilities by using a covered wagon.

“I can put nearly anything on my wagon that will go in a van, especially since I have 4-foot drops for sides rather than 2-foot,” he says. “It’s tall enough to take some high van freight, but I have to take the kit off and put it back on to load.”

Lewis says he is weight-conscious because his backhauls can be heavy. He pulls a 1998 Ravens 48-foot, 102-inch, with a 10-foot, 1-inch spread between axles, also known as a state spread. That spread allows 6,000 extra pounds, and “it gives a great ride and it’s very stable.” Lewis considered buying a bolted steel-aluminum combo, but decided against it when experienced friends warned him of excessive “side flex.” He says his welded aluminum Ravens has given him no problems after more than 600,000 miles.

Lewis, who says he often manhandles his side kit, is considering a switch to a roll tarp to provide more ease of loading and to save nearly 1,000 pounds.

A variation on the flatbed with sides is a Conestoga setup. Using a roll tarp that includes the sides and top, a Conestoga “turns a flat into a full-sized van and there are no side kits to handle,” says Jeff Boyd, product manager for Aero, a manufacturer of tarp systems.

SINGLE-DROP

Single-drops have a 9- or 10-foot upper deck above the drive axles that drops 18 inches to the main deck. The lower deck is about 38 to 40 inches high and can be as long as 43 feet. Freight can be difficult to tarp, particularly if it extends from one deck to the other.

Nearly anything you can put on a flatbed can be put on a single-drop, but flats cannot handle anything higher than 81/2 feet. You can put much more industrial machinery, for example, on a single-drop, and still have nearly the same backhaul flexibility as a flat. Because a single-drop can handle tall freight, its mileage rate can be higher than the $1.30 per mile Lewis averaged last year with his side kit.

The state spread may have the most flexibility for a single-drop because it increases payload, but other axle configurations and features may be helpful. For example, the 60-inch Canadian spread enables a carrier to haul legally in both the United States and Canada, says Brad Schultz, director of trailer sales at Reinke. Buyers may also want to consider a sliding front axle, which enables you to run in the states with higher trailer gross weight capacity than in Canada.

Steve Hallas of East Manufacturing says a dump valve on the rear axle of a state spread set-up allows the driver to pivot on his front axle, reducing torque on tires and axles in corners. Buyers who opt for single-drops may not need this feature to work productively, but operating without one will prove costly in tire repairs and axle problems.

Also, common add-ons, such as bridges that effectively raise the lower deck to support long, solid loads, may add more flexibility to the single-drop.

This side kit, produced by Aero Industries, is commonly called a covered wagon. Aluminum bows give the tarp its rounded appearance.

DOUBLE DROP AND RGN

Double-drops have three decks: a small forward deck, the well and a trunnion deck directly above the trailer axles. The well, 18 inches to 24 inches off the ground, handles freight up to 12 feet high, or higher in the case of overheight loads. Some double-drops stretch to make more loading space in the well. Other double-drops have removable goose necks to accommodate ground-loaded drive-on freight.

RGNs have a gooseneck attached to the fifth wheel. This neck hangs the well deck low to the ground and, when the neck is removed, the front of the trailer acts as a loading ramp. It can accommodate high freight, as well. Most RGNs have a deck height of about 18 inches.

“There is more double-drop freight than RGN freight in our system,” says Alan Asfschar, Landstar Ranger agent in Terre Haute, Ind., “but guys pulling both types of trailers are doing OK.” Double-drops and RGNs are good for freight such as radar systems, dozers and industrial equipment.

“Rates are going down, but the RGN operator still runs fewer miles and makes more money than the typical van operator,” says Earl Collins, who dispatches Mercer Transportation’s fleet of 23 RGNs.

Monty Hale, who pulls his double-drop RGN for Mercer, runs 130,000 miles a year, half of it deadhead. Since 2001, his rates dropped 20 to 30 cents per mile to about $1.20. Hale pulls an all-steel XL Specialized RGN with a hydraulic neck. It weighs between 13,000 and 14,000 pounds and has a 7-foot trunnion deck, but no space on the front of his 29-foot well to haul freight.

“You can load on a mechanical neck, but you have to crawl under the trailer to hook and unhook,” he says. Hale can load 40,000 pounds without permits, but about two-thirds of his freight is permitted. With permits he can gross 106,000 pounds. His hydraulic neck has seven positions, a necessary quality to clear low obstacles.

Hale’s double-drop, with only 18 inches of ground clearance, requires him to get out of the truck and raise the neck with his pony motor to clear railroad tracks and other high spots. The only real drawback is that “some customers don’t want to load off the ground,” he says. RGNs can be loaded from the front in a drive-on situation or from the side, but they are not dock height.

Hale’s RGN is also equipped with an optional axle hinged on the rear. He flips it down when another axle is needed for weight reasons. “I can scale 3,000 to 10,000 more pounds with the flip down, depending on the state,” he says.

Jerry Lahman, who owns an older Diamond double-drop RGN, has run for Landstar since 1983. The features of his 45-foot trailer make it one of the most versatile high-dollar niche trailers out there. It has a 22- to 24-inch deck height, which he can drop to 18 inches for the top-dollar high loads. The well stretches from 26 feet to 48 feet; with the front wall and upper deck removed, he can load rolling stock. While his double-drop weighs 22,000 pounds, the weight seems insignificant, given its flexibility.

Still, Lahman says a double-drop has disadvantages, such as downtime. “Shippers don’t want to load double-drops with flatbed freight,” Lehman remarks, “even when they can. I sit a lot.”

“Rates have dropped from $2.50 and $3 to the low twos,” he says. “I only run about 75,000 miles a year, and probably a third of that is deadhead.”

Tarping a double-drop load can be an extremely trying, as well. “The big pieces might take six or seven or eight 24-foot square rags,” Lahman says. “Even if you have enough tarp, a big awkward-shaped piece is very difficult to tarp well.”

FULL-TILT DECK
More niche than most open trailers, full-tilt deck trailers are expensive and heavy (16,000 pounds to 17,000 pounds), making them suited for certain operations only. The deck of a Landoll, which dominates the niche, is 2-inch oak and steel plate.

This type of trailer, also made by Talbert and Trail King, is unique for its full-tilt bed and traveling axle. These features give it an extremely low loading angle for ground-level loading. This allows even sensitive asphalt pavers to be loaded without dragging the rollers. The trailers come in many configurations and can use a variety of supplements, such as winches and dock levelers (hydraulic jacks that raise the trailer to dock height).

Landolls are selling well to RGN owners looking for more surface area, says Jim Ladner, sales manager for Landoll. “This trailer has a full 40 feet of deck space,” Ladner says. “The RGN gives away at least 10 feet of deck space. And Landolls can be outfitted with a hydraulic dock leveling system to give it more flexibility,” he says.

Brendan Fisher, an owner-operator who has his own authority, pulls a 2002 Landoll in the Chicago area. His trailer is equipped with the forklift package, a necessity when hauling 56,000-pound monster forklifts. Fisher equipped his trailer with dock levelers for an additional $3,000. “The levelers added 600 pounds, but they are worth every ounce,” Fisher says. “If I had to buy again, I’d also put on a third axle, even though it runs $11,000.”

Fisher’s Landoll looks like a single-drop and has a 9-foot upper deck. Deck height is a mere 36 inches, but gives away some height to RGNs and double-drops. “I lose loads because of height,” Fisher says. “There’s a fine line between choosing an RGN or a Landoll based on height over weight.”

For an over-the-road operation, prospective buyers might choose the RGN and consider adding a dock leveling system to add flexibility. But the owner-operator who is looking for a regional niche to exploit might go with a full-tilt deck, opting for its flexibility over height and weight considerations more specific to OTR operations.

Operating with a specialty open trailer takes some planning, especially for the owner-operator not leased to a carrier or leased to a very small one. Still, there is always some demand for the equipment. “Specialized freight follows the trailers,” says Earl Collins, dispatcher for Mercer’s specialized fleet. “We look for freight for the specialty trailers as operators with that equipment sign on.”


Conestoga tarps, produced by Aero Industries, are attached to the rails with a slide and expand like an accordion to provide full van-type coverage for a flatbed.

ALUMINUM, STEEL OR COMBO?

Any open trailer’s primary material – steel, aluminum or a combination – will affect price, strength, design and weight.

Older trailers were steel. Their weight limited payload. Aluminum trailers and aluminum-steel combos are becoming the norm, although steel is still the norm for RGNs and double-drops.

Charlie Reinhart of TMI Trailer Sales in Walton, Ky., says aluminum’s popularity keeps growing because the new 6016 tempered aluminum is light and extremely strong.

“Aluminum and combo trailers have more carrying capacity,” Reinhart says. “They will give you more payload and more ability to carry concentrated loads.” Older combo trailers often brought complaints. “They were welded at the joints where aluminum and steel met. Since aluminum is heat-sensitive, welding weakens the trailer.”

Reinhart says Reitnauer Trailers use a bolting system rather than welding. “Reitnauer is our biggest seller because of its carrying capacity and construction,” he says.

But Brad Schultz, director of trailer sales at Reinke, sees another side to the bolting issue: “Using bolts has the disadvantage of concentrating a lot of stress around the bolt. Bolts also require maintenance in the form of tightening,” Schultz said. At East, welding is used almost exclusively. “Most aluminum trailers still have steel legs,” says Steve Hallas of East. “We weld steel to aluminum, but wrap the joints in a Mylar gasket and paint it with zinc chromate to prevent galvanic corrosion.” Another factor is the stress on side rails and chain pockets where the added stress of tie-down may crack aluminum.

“Weight can vary from 600 to 800 pounds, even when you’re spec’ing between trailers made from the same material,” Schultz says. Weight considerations grow when choosing among steel, combo and aluminum trailers. An owner-operator not too concerned about weight savings might choose a combo over an aluminum trailer to save money. Nevertheless, as aluminum’s reputation for strength grows, more buyers will choose it, Schultz says.

One pound of aluminum has the strength of 2.4 pounds of high-tensile steel or 3.2 pounds of mild steel. That’s why aluminum products can offer higher concentrated load capacities for freight such as steel coils, and more overall payload. East’s aluminum platform handles up to 50,000 pounds in 4 feet. This trailer also delivers about 1,500 pounds more payload capacity than a comparable combo, for example. Buyers who need heavy-haul capacity can upgrade to East’s MMX, rated to haul up to 72,000 pounds in 4 feet on a 48-footer.

Another reason to buy aluminum, Schultz says, is durability. Some fleet owners believe it lengthens their buying cycle from five to perhaps seven years.

Not all manufacturers make all varieties of open trailers. For example, Fontaine makes a full range of them, while Transcraft makes steel and combo flatbeds and single-drops. Great Dane makes flats, single-drops and extendables, but no RGNs and nothing in aluminum. Diamond Trailers offers a variety of lowboys and offers some custom building. Wabash can make a single-drop as a special order, but does not deal in double-drops or RGNs. Utility focuses on flatbeds, but also sells various tarp systems.

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